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The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poetsby Michael Schmidt
"Writing a modern biography of Orpheus or Homer is rather like writing a biography of Batman, or Madame Bovary, or God. There is plenty of material, but the exercise is misguided and futile....[T]his book contains twenty-five implausible and entirely undocumented lives. Schmidt puts an enormous strain on his reader's credulity. But the effort is entirely superfluous, and one wonders why Schmidt felt compelled to make it." Emily Wilson, the New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
When Michael Schmidt's last book, Lives of the Poets, was published, Mark Strand called it "a tour de force, an astonishing view of the whole of poetry in English, a superb read." Now Schmidt brings the same erudition, insight, and élan to The First Poets — the story of the ancient Greeks whose work continues to influence poetry in our own time.
Poetry takes its bearings from the brilliant constellation of early and classical Greek poets, who have long been overshadowed by the great Greek dramatists. In The First Poets, Schmidt rescues the lives of these poets from their relative obscurity. Here is Orpheus, the first of the first poets, healer, mystic, and magical fixer; and Homer, about whom almost nothing is known for certain except the magnificence of his two great epic poems. Here are Linos and Arion, who survive only in legend; and Amphion, who survives through the tales we ascribe to him. Here are Sappho, the greatest Greek woman writer, and Hesiod; Hipponax, the "dirty old man of poetry"; and Theocritus, the father of the pastoral; and many others.
Combining the verifiable facts of their lives and the narratives provided by later writers, Schmidt walks the fine line between fact and scholarly conjecture to create vivid, animated, wonderfully compelling portraits of these ancestors of our culture.
"A flute is a flute unless, in the works of Orpheus, Hesiod or Sappho, it was first an aulos, in which case 'flute' is a poorly translated name for a reed instrument akin to our modern day oboe. Why the slip? No one knows, but this biographic compendium of 23 ancient Greek poets goes a long way toward curbing such mistakes by offering itself as a sort of reference tool with which readers-at-large can take up the once core educational practice of reading the first poets. Poet and critic Schmidt refers to his project as 'protestant' because it argues that any reader can access the ancient texts in his or her own vernacular English, and without a doctorate in ancient literatures. By way of help, Schmidt complements his hints on flutes with highly readable surveys of the critical land surrounding his subjects — his discussion of the function of lyric poetry for the ancient Greeks is one brilliant example. But the book's unique value lies in its carefully crafted attention to the concerns of contemporary fans of English-language poetry. For every Pindar of Thebes or Hipponas of Ephesus, there are references to modernist luminaries such as Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle. A chapter on Homer includes lines penned by Keats. These more familiar names are cited not as authorities on ancient poetry but as careful readers or selfless translators, each bent over their copies of the ancient texts trying to figure out the important details, like what did Sappho mean when she used the first-person pronoun — did she really mean herself? The effect is a careful threading of old and not-so-old into a single community of readers, one into which this fine book does much to welcome us." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"An important contribution to both the literary and the poetry worlds...." Library Journal
"...[T]he reader willing to stick with his tireless documentation will be amply rewarded. An exciting work of scholarship by a masterly poet." Kirkus Reviews
Book News Annotation:
Schmidt (writing, Manchester Metropolitan U.) relates what is known about the lives of 25 poets or groups of poets, but what is known most about them are the poems that were written and have survived, and so they consume most of his attention. He begins of course with Orpheus of Thrace. Others of the better known include Homer, Hesiod, Alcaeus of Mytilene, Sappho of Eressus, Solon of Athens, Anacreon of Teos, Pindar of Thebes, and Apollonius of Rhodes.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
When Schmidt's last book, Lives of the Poets, was published, Mark Strand called it a tour de force, an astonishing view of the whole of poetry in English, a superb read. Now Schmidt brings the same erudition, insight, and élan to The First Poets — the story of the ancient Greeks whose work continues to influence poetry in our own time.
About the Author
Michael Schmidt is the editor of PN Review, and editorial and managing director of Carcanet Press. He lives in Manchester, England, where he is the director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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